The day before the Ontario election, former prime minister Stephen Harper took the stage at a conference in Alberta to warn that Canada’s brand is suffering in international circles. He also put in a plug for Doug Ford.
The ex-federal Conservative leader admitted his bias – he described Mr. Ford as a friend. Then, he rhymed off a depressingly long list of reasons that business leaders are steering clear of Canada – uncertainty over trade with the United States, rising taxes and mounting deficits, an inability to execute on major projects such as pipelines. During his speech in Calgary, Mr. Harper told Ontario-based members of the Canadian Venture Capital & Private Equity Association to get home in time to vote Conservative, to send a message that Canada is open for business.
Message received: Mr. Ford won a comfortable majority Thursday. The question now is whether a populist Ontario premier can find common ground with CEOs who may be relieved that the Tories won, but remain skeptical of the leader’s ability to deliver on campaign promises of stability and future prosperity.
For the business crowd, electing a Conservative government in the country’s industrial heartland is significant if only because it prevented NDP politicians from taking power and implementing pro-union policies that many saw as increasing labour costs, while at the same time hiking taxes on the wealthy.
Mr. Ford swept into office on his everyman credentials. He won the leadership of his party because of – rather than in spite of – his lack of ties to Bay Street. Ontario’s last Conservative premier to win an election, Mike Harris, came to office in much the same fashion. It’s somewhat ironic that Mr. Harris, who now hangs his hat at law firm Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP, recently began an outreach program aimed at introducing Mr. Ford to business leaders.
The balancing act facing Mr. Ford is staying true to his anti-establishment roots while at the same time convincing domestic and foreign investors to put capital to work in Ontario, rather than any number of equally attractive places to stand and grow. To lead a province that’s scoring points for economic growth, Premier Ford will need to solve problems that have been building over generations.
Success for the next Premier means bringing down the cost of electricity over time – and you don’t do that simply by sacking the board at CEO at Hydro One Ltd., as Mr. Ford proposed as a populist candidate. Success comes from unsnarling clogged transit routes in the Toronto region – and Mr. Ford had few solutions on this front during his time on city council. And to emerge a winner, Ontario’s Conservative Premier-designate has to find common cause with a Liberal Prime Minister and keep the U.S. border open for two-way trade.
From Bay Street’s point of view, a successful relationship also means ensuring the Premier-to-be resists any impulse to bash big business and big banks. It means curbing any plans Mr. Ford and his team may have to revisit what are perceived as anti-business policies from previous regimes, such as provincial capital taxes that weighed heavily on financial institutions, and were only eliminated after years of lobbying.
The first sign of how business will be done under the Conservatives in Ontario will come when a cabinet is named. From all reports, Mr. Ford listens. The team he assembles will become his links to the business community.
Mr. Ford swept into office accompanied by newly minted MPs with solid business leadership credentials. Rod Phillips ran a number of companies, including the provincially owned Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp.; Peter Bethlenfalvy is a successful investment banker who also headed credit rating agency DBRS; and Caroline Mulroney built a solid career on Bay Street prior to entering politics – she’s more than her sterling Tory family name.
There’s a path forward that sees the Ontario’s Premier-designate burnishing Canada’s brand for business. It requires Mr. Ford to get past his own bluster, and begin solving issues that bedeviled his predecessors.